Political parties in power often reserve the lower bill numbers in the General Assembly (and Congress) for bills that they feel are of high critical importance. So when the state Senate gave the number 1 to a school voucher bill, warning flags were immediately raised. On January 26, 2011, Senators Jeff Piccola (R-Dauphin and York counties) and Anthony Hardy Williams (D-Delaware and Philadelphia counties) along with 15 co-sponsors introduced SB 1, which has been titled the "Opportunity Scholarships and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act." It was referred to the Senate Education Committee and they held the first hearing on February 16, 2011.
This title is a misnomer. Proponents of this bill are using words like "school choice" and "opportunity scholarship" rather than "voucher" because it puts a positive spin on what two thirds of the public oppose – giving tax-payer money to private and parochial schools. This bill removes funds for public education from struggling school districts by creating a voucher program to send taxpayer monies to private and parochial schools with little or no oversight as to the education provided in these schools.
Pennsylvania NOW opposes school vouchers for several reasons.
- School vouchers are clearly unconstitutional under the Pennsylvania Constitution. Article III, Sections 15, 29, and 30 clearly prohibit state funding of non-public schools:
- Article III, Section 15 states, "Public school money not available to sectarian schools. No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school."
- Article III, Section 29 states, "Appropriations for public assistance. No appropriation shall be made for charitable, educational or benevolent purposes to any person or community nor to any denominational and sectarian institution, corporation or association…" The only exception to this constitutional prohibition is for state grants and scholarships for higher education.
- Article III, Section 30 states, "Charitable and educational appropriations. No appropriation shall be made to any charitable or educational institution not under the absolute control of the Commonwealth [emphasis added], other than normal schools established by law for the professional training of teachers for the public schools of the State, except by a vote of two-thirds of all the members elected to each House."
- Schools accepting the vouchers can discriminate in whom they accept, which could possibly violate the Pennsylvania Fair Educational Opportunities Act. SB 1 specifies that nonpublic schools may not discriminate in its enrollment decisions based on race. All other forms of educational discrimination would be allowed as this bill provides wide flexibility to these schools regarding other admissions policies. Therefore, a non-public school could receive monies from the state while being able to deny admissions based on gender, religion or ability. Boys, but not girls could be accepted. Christian, but not students from a Jewish or Muslim home, could be accepted. In addition, children who do not have a disability or who are "gifted" would be admitted but children who have a physical, emotional, or cognitive disability could legally be denied admission under SB 1. Note, it is the private schools – not the parent or the public school – who determines who is admitted. Thus, a private school can select whomever they want and still take public funding. Likewise, these schools can kick out any student they want to at any time without any protective recourse as is present in the public school system.
- Voucher programs provide little to no accountability to Pennsylvania taxpayers. Private schools do not have to follow the Department of Education's academic guidelines and students are not required to take any of the state-mandated school assessment tests. As such, there is no way for parents to determine if their children would be receiving a similar quality of education.
- Vouchers do not improve academic achievement. The schools that are targeted in SB 1 are the "under-achieving" schools in the state. The vast majority (n=125) of the 144 school districts listed by Senator Piccola are urban school districts with high levels of poverty. Research has shown that out-of-school factors such as food insecurity; lack of access to health care and insurance; family relations and family stress; and the community environment all affect academic achievement. Students who are hungry have problems concentrating in school. Students in stressful family situations and/or who are victims of or witness abuse often develop social and emotional problems that manifest themselves in low academic achievement. School vouchers do nothing to ensure that these out-of-school factors will change or improve. Without changes to the environment surrounding people living in poverty, the negative impacts of poverty will simply follow the student and continue to undermine his or her achievement potential. School vouchers do not change this one iota.
- Children who remain in the public schools have less funding available for their education. In a tight economic environment and with a mandate to expand funding for vouchers from a minimum of $53.4 million in the first year to over $1.3 billion in the third year and thereafter, public school funding will be even further threatened. Where is this money going to come from? New taxes? This number assumes that ten percent of eligible students will use the vouchers. By pulling state funds away from the public school system and still requiring those schools to continue paying for the "in-kind" services of transportation and books, the struggling school districts will have even larger financial holes that they will need to dig out of. Robbing Peter to pay Paul – or in this case robbing public schools to pay for private, parochial education – will contribute to more, not less, problems in these school districts. Moreover, it will threaten the very existence of the right to full education for all as these schools continue to fall further and further behind.
Pennsylvania NOW is joining Americans United, the Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA), the Pennsylvania NAACP, and other organizations to oppose SB 1 and school vouchers. We are all asking you to contact your legislators now to voice concerns with SB 1 and ask them to vote "No" on the bill. You can find your legislators contact information at http://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/legis/home/findyourlegislator. The PSBA has created a list of questions to ask your legislator. You can use this list for some of your talking points when you contact your Senator and Representative in opposing this dangerous bill.